Hail to the expert? Modern Direct democracy in times of crisis

Suddenly famous: top civil servants in Switzerland. Keystone / Anthony Anex

One of the new rituals in Switzerland is the almost daily Covid-19 press conference, where ministry officials in Bern line up to report on how the virus is affecting the country.

This content was published on April 1, 2020 - 14:47

Live-streamed by the national broadcaster, thousands of people (and not just journalists) tune in for guidance from the sudden and reluctant celebrities: Ms Ineichen-Fleisch from the economics department, Mr Lenz from foreign affairs, Mr Bock from customs, and – the superstar! – Mr Koch from health.

It’s interesting to watch through a democratic lens: with parliament taking a breather and citizens confined to their houses, “democracy” in its most basic, participative form has taken a back seat, while the faces of authority are largely unelected, bureaucratic, highly competent experts.

It’s also interesting to remember how we tend to view democracy and the role of experts during peace time, or whatever we call non-pandemic periods now.

In January, at an event in Bern about the French “Gilets Jaunes” and direct democracy, ex-parliamentarian and law professor Suzette Sandoz gave a lucid overview of the challenges facing the Swiss system, including what she criticised as an over-reliance on experts. In a direct democracy, where citizens are sovereign, she said, there is a worrying tendency for decision-makers to hide behind the non-political and publicly unchecked advice of experts.

A few years ago, during the Brexit campaign in the UK, cabinet minister Michael Gove made his now infamous “people in this country have had enough of experts” remark. And a few years before that, Plato was up to something similar in Greece, albeit on the other side of the argument, raising the idea of a “noocracy”, or a rule of the wise, to replace the rule of the fickle masses.

Epistocracy (the rule of experts) versus the people: the debate isn’t new. But a crisis, it seems, can suddenly change the tone.

Shouting from the balconies

In Switzerland, there have been some attempts to bring the voice of citizens into this pandemic. Most obviously, parliament has decided – despite scepticism about maintaining social distancing – to hold a special sitting in early May, to provide oversight on the government’s emergency decisions. “Democracy and the rule of law should not fall victims to the coronavirus,” warned Senate President Hans Stöckli.

Others have raised the more idealistic notion of direct citizen deliberation: Professor Nenad Stojanović reckonsExternal link that “epistocracy is crap”, and that the eggheads themselves can’t agree on the best way to combat the virus. He says we’d be better off getting some quality testing done among a representative sample of the population, then letting citizens debate what to do next.

But in such times, such calls seem like piddling into the wind. In Switzerland, the experts are in demand, and the authorities – so far – are trusted. A survey published earlier this week showed that just under 90% of the population think the Health Office is doing a good job; most Swiss citizens are doing what they have been told (stay at home! wash your hands!); and a reportExternal link released on Monday by Imperial College London cautiously suggested that the containment measures taken across many European countries (measures which were often based on statistical modelling, including by Imperial itself) are starting to be successful, in terms of saving lives.

As for how long this will last, that will likely depend on how successful the advice and statistical modelling turns out to be in the longer term. Even here, experts are far from united, since science is not perfect, and (for the moment) neither are the data sources, as St Gallen economics professor Guido Cozzi told “if data is badly collected, we will simulate wrong scenarios and policy-makers will make wrong decisions.”

Let’s see if this is the start of a boffin renaissance, or whether we’ll go back to bashing them once democracy returns to normal.

EU parliament members, who met virtually this week, have started a petition asking the Commission to take “a clear position against the misuse of the coronavirus crisis for power grabs by authoritarian governments.” Keystone / Olivier Hoslet

V-Dem and global democracy threats

Internationally, there has also been plenty of expert commentary about the impact of the virus on democracy.

Here’s Jan-Werner MüllerExternal link on the danger of governments or autocrats using such periods to grab more power; Cas MuddeExternal link on how the crisis will probably not lead to the demise of populism; Stojanović againExternal link (in Italian) on how such crises can be threats but also opportunities (e.g. the two world wars saw subsequent democratic advances for women in many countries).

Overall, despite the optimism of’s Bruno Kaufmann, the message seems to be one of caution: when somebody – or a virus, as the case may be – punches you in the face, it’s an unfortunate but natural side effect that you’re unlikely to notice they’re also standing on your toe; beware viral power-grabs, as Müller says.

And as Viktor Orbán’s successful move this week to expand his power to rule by decree shows, such fears are not abstract. Politico reportsExternal link that the new legislation in Hungary – which is indefinite – includes the rule that “individuals who publicise what are viewed as untrue or distorted facts – and which could interfere with the protection of the public or could alarm or agitate a large number of people – now face several years in jail”.

It’s tempting to say that Orbán is hardly representative of Europe, or even the world at large. But in fact he is symbolic of the major finding of another recent publication, which was also nearly lost in the corona chaos: the 2020 Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) reportExternal link.

The authors note that in 2019, for the first time in 20 years, more people lived in autocracies than in democracies – including the citizens of Hungary, which has become “the first non-democratic state” in the European Union. They also flag India and the US as major nations going in the wrong direction. “With the democracy report 2020, we issue an autocratisation alert,” they write.

There is a more positive side: across the world, civil society is mobilising and demonstrating for democracy in larger numbers than ever – they cite Hong Kong, Tehran, Warsaw, and Santiago de Chile.

Of course, if all the people are locked in their houses, they can’t demonstrate. 

But at the end of the day, the ongoing slowdown of public and private life can hopefully teach us all a few lessons when it comes to being patient and committed to a common cause. And while the corona pandemic will be over at some point, the democratic journey is a never-ending one.

Anything you’d like to hear more about in the world of (direct) democracy? Let us know.

Domhnall O’SullivanExternal link and Bruno KaufmannExternal link

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